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UNC’s CareerStart program raises test scores, narrows the achievement gap among middle school students

When Dennis Orthner, professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, helped launch CareerStart four years ago, he had one primary goal in mind: to keep more students in school. Orthner saw the intervention program, which helps students connect what they are learning in school to future career opportunities, as a way to reach those most at-risk of failing.
What he didn’t expect was that this same program would amount to a possible solution to raising academic performance and closing the achievement gap among students statewide. But according to a recent study of student progress in one North Carolina school system, CareerStart may hold that potential.
The success is being touted in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, where Orthner; Patrick Akos, an associate professor in UNC’s School of Education, and Donald Martin, WSFC school superintendent, launched CareerStart in 2004. According to a recent analysis, eighth-graders in the school system’s middle schools were more likely than other students to achieve “mastery” or proficiency on state end-of-grade (EOG) math and reading tests if they were taught by seventh and eighth-grade teachers who regularly used career examples to illustrate their classroom lessons.
Furthermore, results show that minority and low-income students who hear these career examples from their teachers were more likely to achieve state test scores similar to white students, helping to narrow the achievement gap that has long separated minority and disadvantaged children and their white peers.
“We know that students learn better if they know how they will use the information,” said Orthner, the associate director for Policy Development and Analysis at the Jordan Institute for Families at the School of Social Work. “For many low-income kids, this is particularly true, especially if they don’t yet have a sense of their future.”
These latest results follow an earlier CareerStart analysis, which found that students regularly exposed to lessons with career examples had fewer unexcused absences and school suspensions and were more likely to “find school exciting, look forward to learning new things and see school as being important in their lives.”
CareerStart now serves 15,000 students in six school systems across the state, though Orthner hopes the program will expand to others. CareerStart focuses on the core courses of math, language arts, science and social studies in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The program is tailored to students in the middle grades, an educational turning point for many children who often begin to show a disinterest in school. According to UNC research, students who lose interest in their education in these middle grades are less likely to succeed in high school.
As the name implies, CareerStart aims to get students thinking earlier about their possible futures. Though many teachers already rely on career examples to make learning real, CareerStart also offers mini lessons online to support a school’s curriculum. For example, math and language arts lessons enable teachers to demonstrate why caterers need to know fractions when baking decadent desserts or why a marketing and advertising agent needs to understand proper grammar and the power of persuasive language.
“We want all students to feel like school has value,” Orthner said.
All of the program findings are based on a study of 3,500 middle school students whose academic performances were tracked from fifth- through eighth-grades.
Overall, 72 percent of eighth-graders who had seven to eight classes in the past two years in which teachers used career examples achieved mastery in math compared to 58 percent of students who took classes in which no job opportunities were connected to their regular lessons. In reading, 52 percent of students who were given career examples in seven to eight classes were considered proficient compared to 47 percent of those whose teachers used no job illustrations.
Reading scores likely didn’t improve as much as math scores, Orthner said, because most studies show that student performance in reading is established in earlier grades, and changing these competencies is more difficult as children age. 
More promising, he said, were findings in math for low-income students, especially among Hispanic and black students. According to the study, 62 percent of Hispanic and 51 percent of black students who were exposed to career examples in seven to eight classes achieved mastery in math compared to 30 percent of Hispanics and 33 percent of blacks in classes that used no job illustrations.
Nationwide, many school divisions have struggled to narrow the academic achievement gap that has persisted between low-income students and minorities and their white counterparts. The CareerStart program may help alleviate this problem, Orthner said.
Overall, according to the UNC study, minority students in core classes where teachers did not provide career examples scored about 30 percentage points lower on EOG tests than white students. But that gap nearly closed when most of their teachers provided career examples in their classrooms. White students, meanwhile, scored at about the same level, regardless of whether their teachers illustrated instruction with career examples.
“Although this program is universal and does not single out particular students, some seem to need to hear the career relevance message more than others,” Orthner said. “It appears to have the biggest impact on lower-income kids, and particularly kids of color, all of which gets to the achievement gap issue.”
The program has also shown positive effects on school attendance rates and student behavior. For example, when most teachers offered career examples with their lessons, the average number of annual unexcused absences among low-income students dropped by nearly half. Similar results were achieved among some minority students. The number of absences among Hispanic children declined, on average, from six per year per student, down to three, while annual absences among black children fell, on average, from nearly three per student down to one.
Suspension rates also declined by half, down from an average of one per student per year, Orthner said.
“What this tells us is if you can improve a student’s sense that school is really important, their attention improves and the number of behavior incidents decreases,” he added.
By Susan White